Preston Smith's Corner

Book Review: Mastering Virtual Teams: Strategies, Tools, and Techniques that Succeed

by Deborah L. Duarte and Nancy Tennant Snyder; San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999, 229 + xviii pages, US$39.95

Many of us have battled to keep product development teams together geographically, as we have observed that co-located teams perform both better and more rapidly. However, times are changing, and in the 21st century physical co-location will be increasingly difficult to achieve.

This is a book for those who must form a dispersed team, lead one, oversee one, or serve as a member of one, especially if they have little experience in working with team members at a distance or if they have had problems in the past in making such teams work effectively.

Team dispersion is arising from several sources. Corporate acquisitions bring together team members who naturally work in different locations. Globalization trends will continue to drive manufacturers toward global markets and offshore manufacturing, adding distance to relationships [1]. In addition, companies that formerly developed products solo are now creatively forming development alliances with suppliers, customers, contractors, academic and other consultants, and even competitors—generally all of them offsite.

Duarte and Snyder have chosen a most timely title but, unfortunately, not a very helpful one. Virtual team is clearly the management buzzword for this phenomenon. However, virtual is defined as “being such in essence or effect though not formally recognized or admitted” [4]. The difficulty with this word is that it softens (i.e., only in essence or effect) the quite real (formally recognized or admitted) work that the team is charged with doing. This distinction is more critical for dispersed teams, when many activities are out of sight. We cannot afford to not formally recognize or admit what is happening, trusting that results will appear in essence or effect. Consequently, in this review I will use the term dispersed teams rather than virtual teams to recognize their essence without suggesting anything like smoke and mirrors.

The strength of this book lies in the wealth of tools and techniques it offers. To help readers select the most useful tools, the authors classify seven types of teams. Product development generally fits best in the project team category. However, they characterize project teams as having fluid membership and decision-making authority. In my experience, these are not givens for product development teams and, in fact, are primary criteria for distinguishing teams that perform well from those that do not. Consequently, be careful about following the recommendations for project teams blindly.

Many of the tools are in the form of checklists. Some checklists are of the conventional type that helps you to remember things that need to be done, but many are more powerful. For instance, the book’s initial checklist defines the seven types of teams to help you identify your team type. Then it guides you toward quantifying the complexity of your dispersed team so that you get an indication of the roughness of the road ahead. Another checklist, number 4.1, is a rather elaborate instrument that allows you to assess critical dispersed-team competencies of the individuals on your team. It should be quite useful to a leader setting up a dispersed team.

The nature of dispersed teams is that they require both the soft issues (for example, trust building and leadership development) encountered in traditional teams and hard issues (communication technologies) used to span distances. Duarte and Snyder handle this balance beautifully. They cover the technology in Chapter 2 at a level of detail that will retain some permanence as the technology advances, and they provide several charts to help readers connect the task at hand with an appropriate technology. Throughout the book they point out strengths and weaknesses of various technologies for specific team tasks. For example, on pages 162–63 they address technologies appropriate for use in dispersed team meetings, depending on the purpose of the meeting.

I also enjoyed the concrete way that these authors treat cultural issues. They divide dispersed team culture into three types: national culture (for example, Japanese versus Americans), organizational culture (differences between Intel and Lucent Technologies), and functional culture (engineers versus marketers). In the national culture area, they present the useful and well-founded categories of Hofstede and Hall to clarify the distinctions. In the organizational area, they rely on the Competing Values Model of Cameron and Quinn. Four checklists help to make this material actionable. Clearly, these cultural issues can get in the way of progress, but Duarte and Snyder are careful to emphasize that cultural diversity is not something that we should—or even can—change but is instead an asset that ultimately adds richness to a team’s output.

Trust is such an important issue for teams, especially dispersed ones, that the authors devote a chapter solely to it. As they say, “One of the biggest mistakes a virtual team leader can make is to underestimate the power of trust . . . if we do not find ways to build trust and understand how technology affects it, people will feel as if they are always in a very precarious state.” (page 83) In addition to the trust chapter (Chapter 7), the team-building chapter (Chapter 5) has a couple of excellent tables useful for selecting team-building activities depending on the cultural differences that exist on your team.

In general, dispersed teams have all of the difficulties that co-located ones have plus several more. One difficult area is in coordination and collaboration. The authors observe that “traditional organizational structures, reporting hierarchies, processes, and systems do not ensure coordination and collaboration in virtual teams.” (page 122) Another is in six additional competencies, including use of technology, self-management, and boundary management, that dispersed team members must acquire (pages 126–31). One more difficulty that the book addresses (pages 195–201) is recognizing conflict and performance problems when team members cannot be observed directly.

There are a number of books on dispersed teams available today. My survey shows this book to be one of the three leaders. Which of them you choose depends on your learning style. I prefer Mastering Virtual Teams because of its practical, how-to approach, balanced treatment, and rich use of sources. An alternative is Virtual Teams [3], Which leans much more heavily toward history (back to Norman times), concepts, and case studies, restricting its how-to help to just thirteen pages (pages 212–224). Its apparent foundation is Stamps’ Ph.D. dissertation from twenty years ago. Virtual Teams’ message tends to be: dispersed teams are here, and you had better get the technology and get onboard. Your third option is Virtual Leadership [2], a business novel that conveys the concepts involved through the fictional exploits of modern-day manager being coached by King Arthur as he created Camelot in 597AD. If you learned from Goldratt’ s manufacturing flow classic, The Goal, you will enjoy Kostner. She handles the soft issues well but is of no help on technology topics.

One final caution: In my experience in working with a similar book [5] for a decade, I have found that although such books’ value greatly outweighs their price, just buying books and distributing them accomplishes little. Getting your whole dispersed team on board requires that everyone on the team absorb and agree on the techniques the team will employ. We have found no substitute for initial face-to-face training to accomplish this vital preparation.

Preston G. Smith CMC
New Product Dynamics


1. Friedman, Thomas L. The Lexus and the Olive Tree. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (See review in this journal, November 2000.)

2. Kostner, Jaclyn. Virtual Leadership: Secrets from the Round Table for the Multi-Site Manager. New York: Warner Books, 1994.

3. Lipnack, Jessica, and Stamps, Jeffrey. Virtual Teams: People Working Across Boundaries with Technology. Second Edition. New York: John Wiley, 2000.

4. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Tenth Edition. Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, 1998.

5. Smith, Preston G., and Reinertsen, Donald G. Developing Products in Half the Time: New Rules, New Tools. Second Edition, New York: John Wiley, 1998. (Originally published in 1991.)

(Reviewed in the Journal of Product Innovation Management, March 2001, pp. 127-29.)

(c) Copyright 2013 Preston G. Smith. All Rights Reserved.

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